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The Postman Always Rings Twice  
first edition cover
First edition cover
1934 pub. Alfred A. Knopf
Author James M. Cain
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Crime novel
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf
Publication date 1934
Media type Print (Hardcover)

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a 1934 crime novel by James M. Cain.

The novel was quite successful and notorious upon publication, and is regarded as one of the more important crime novels of the 20th century. Fast-moving and brief (only about 100 pages long, depending on the edition), the novel's mix of sexuality and violence was startling in its time, and saw the book banned in Boston.[1]

It is also included in the Modern Library 100 Best Novels list. [2]

It has been adapted as a motion picture four times; the 1946 version is probably the best known, and is regarded as an important film noir.


Plot summary

The story is narrated in the first person by Frank Chambers, a young drifter who stops at a rural California diner for a meal, and ends up working there. The diner is operated by a young, beautiful woman, Cora, and her much older husband, Nick Papadakis, sometimes called "The Greek".

There is an immediate attraction between Frank and Cora, and they begin a passionate affair with sadomasochistic qualities (when they first embrace, Cora commands Frank to bite her lip, and Frank does so hard enough to draw blood from Cora's lips).

Cora, a femme fatale figure, is tired of her situation, married to a man she does not love, and working at a diner that she wishes to own and improve. Frank and Cora scheme to murder the Greek in order to start a new life together without Cora losing the diner.

They plan on striking Nick's head and making it seem he fell and drowned in the bathtub. Cora fells Nick with a solid blow, but, due to a sudden power outage and the happenstance appearance of a policeman, the scheme is unsuccessful. Nick recovers and because of retrograde amnesia does not suspect that he narrowly avoided being killed.

Still determined to kill Nick, Frank and Cora repeat the first plan, only in a car. Nick is plied with wine, then struck and killed, then the car is crashed. Both Frank and Cora are injured. The local prosecutor suspects what has actually occurred, but doesn't have enough evidence to prove it. As a tactic intended to get Cora and Frank to turn on one another, he tries only Cora for the crime. Although they do turn against each other, a clever ploy from Cora's lawyer prevents Cora's full confession from coming into the hands of the prosecutor. With the tactic having failed to generate any new evidence for the prosecution, Cora ultimately accepts a lenient plea deal under which she is given a suspended sentence and no jail time.

Frank and Cora eventually patch together their tumultuous relationship, and now plan for a future together. But as they seem to be prepared finally to live together, Cora dies in a car accident. The book ends with Frank summarizing events that followed, explaining that he was convicted for Cora's murder and that the text is to be published after his execution.

The title and explanations of its meaning

The title is something of a non sequitur in that nowhere in the novel does a postman character appear, nor is one even alluded to. As such, its meaning has often been the subject of speculation by writers such as William Marling, who suggested that Cain may have taken the title from the sensational 1927 case of Ruth Snyder. Snyder was a woman who, like Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice, had conspired with her lover to murder her husband. While it is recognized that Cain used the Snyder case as an inspiration for his 1943 novel Double Indemnity,[3] Marling offered that it was also a model for, and the source of the title of, The Postman Always Rings Twice. In the real-life case, Snyder said she'd prevented her husband from discovering the changes she'd made to his life insurance policy by telling the postman to deliver the policy's payment notices only to her, and instructing him to ring the doorbell twice as a signal indicating he had such a delivery for her.[4]

In the preface to Double Indemnity, however, Cain gave a specific, and entirely different, explanation of the origin the title for The Postman Always Rings Twice, writing that it came from a discussion he'd had with screenwriter Vincent Lawrence. According to Cain, Lawrence spoke of the anxiety he felt when waiting for the postman to bring him news on a submitted manuscript. According to Cain, Lawrence noted that he would know when the postman had finally arrived because the postman always rang twice, and Cain then lit upon that phrase as a title for his novel. Upon discussing it further, the two men agreed such a phrase was metaphorically suited to Frank's situation at the end of the novel.

With the "postman" being God, or Fate, the "delivery" meant for Frank was his own death as just retribution for murdering Nick. Frank had missed the first "ring" when he initially got away with that killing. However, the postman rang again, and this time the ring was heard, when Frank was wrongly convicted of having murdered Cora, and then sentenced to die for the crime. The theme of an inescapable fate is further underscored in the novel by The Greek's escape from death in the lovers' first murder attempt, only to be done in by their second one.

In his biography of Cain, author Roy Hoopes also recounted the conversation between Cain and Lawrence that gave birth the novel's title. Hoopes's account of their conversation is similar to Cain's, but offered extended detail regarding Lawrence's comments. Specifically, in Hoopes's telling, Lawrence did not say simply that the postman always rang twice, but rather said that at times he was so anxious awaiting the postman's delivery that he'd intentionally go into his backyard trying to avoid hearing the postman's ring. However, Lawrence continued, this tactic inevitably failed because even if the postman's first ring was not noticed, he would always ring twice, and, even from the backyard, that second ring would inevitably be heard.[5]

In the 1946 film adaptation of the novel, Frank explicitly explains the title in the terms offered by Hoopes's biography of Cain.

External links


  1. ^ "The Postman Always Rings Twice".  
  2. ^ "100 Best Novels".  
  3. ^ MacKellar, Landis. (2006) The "Double Indemnity" Murder: Ruth Snyder, Judd Gray & New York's Crime of the Century, Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press. ISBN 0815608241
  4. ^ "Marling, William, Hard-Boiled Fiction, Case Western Reserve University, updated 2 August 2001
  5. ^ Roy Hoopes, Cain: The Biography of James M. Cain, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982 ISBN 0809313618


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) is a film based on the 1934 novel by James M. Cain. This adaptation of the novel is the best known, starring Lana Turner, John Garfield, Cecil Kellaway, Hume Cronyn, Leon Ames, and Audrey Totter. It was directed by Tay Garnett, with a score written by George Bassman and Erich Zeisl (the latter uncredited).


"With my brains and your looks, we could go places"


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